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Using Constraints to Cultivate Creativity

Using Constraints to Cultivate CreativityUsually when we think creativity, we think openness, shades of gray — and yellows, greens and blues — and an infinity of options at our disposal.

But, sometimes, the less we have to work with, the more creative we can get. Sometimes, constraint can actually help creativity flourish.

“There are many real-life situations in which imposing severe constraints leads to an outpouring of creativity,” writes Tina Seelig, executive director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, in her excellent book InGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity.

In it, Seelig includes the ingredients we need to nurture creativity, which she views as an asset in any field and a skill that requires practice.

(Specifically, she proposes a model of creativity called the “Innovation Engine.” You can learn more in this piece by Karen Frenkel.)

As Seelig writes, “Creativity allows you to thrive in an ever-changing world and unlocks a universe of possibilities. With enhanced creativity, instead of problems you see potential, instead of obstacles you see opportunities, and instead of challenges you see a chance to create breakthrough solutions.”

In her chapter on constraints, Seelig discusses the various types of restrictions and gives interesting examples of how individuals and companies have used boundaries as big opportunities.

Language Limits

One way to cultivate creativity is to put limits on language. The founders of Twitter have demonstrated how a limited word count can spawn success and set off a domino effect of creativity.

For instance, in her book, Seelig mentions Maureen Evans (@cookbook), who uses Twitter to publish mini recipes.

Roast Snow Pea & Grapefruit Salad: zest,dice grapefruit;mix juice+t lem&honey&sesoil. Toss lb pea/t sesoil/1/4tzest&s+p;brol~3m. Toss all.

Remember those books on choosing your own adventure? Jonah Peretti (@peretti), co-founder of BuzzFeed and Huffington Post, used Twitter to recreate these quests.

Choose Your Own Twitter Adventure! RT so your followers can play! Good luck! ->

You’re assigned a dangerous mission to save the world! Do you 1) or 2)

You parachute to North Korea sneak past guards to a live nuclear bomb. Do you 1) 2)

Cutting the blue wire begins a chain reaction — omg that is bad. Like really bad.. ->

Your life flashes before your eyes as you die. What could you have done differently? Try again ->

Seelig also shares the example of SMITH magazine’s six-word memoirs. (I’ve talked about this brilliant idea before in this post.) These are a few of the powerful examples in her book:

I was engaged for one day.

I am disabled but not helpless.

I’m the careless man’s careful daughter.

Budget Barriers

Cash, unfortunately, is a common constraint for many of us. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Seelig uses the funny example of the low-budget movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. She describes one scene where viewers hear the sound of horses in the distance.

As the “horses” get closer, we see that it’s really a soldier banging coconuts together to mimic the sound of hooves. Not only does it illustrate that less is more (and make the scene a lot funnier), Seelig says, but it shows the importance of reframing problems in a creative way.

According to Seelig, “By asking the question ‘How can we re-create the sound of horses,’ as opposed to ‘How do we get horses,’ the range of solutions shifts dramatically.”

Eric Ries, co-founder of the online gaming company IMVU, applied the idea of constraint to his philosophy on “lean start-ups.” He believes that having restrictions creates a better product.

That is, companies create a product that takes the least amount of time and money in order to get faster feedback from their customers. As Seelig notes, “This allows you to develop and improve your products much more quickly than when you use traditional engineering practices.”

Quick Deadlines

Some of us view deadlines as stifling. And they can be. But, under the right circumstances, deadlines can enhance your creativity.

According to Seelig, who cites the article “Creativity Under the Gun,” by Teresa M. Amabile, Constance N. Hadley and Steven J. Kramer, a high-pressure situation leads to high creativity when “there is a clear, focused and important goal.” (And when the people are very creative.)

Seelig shares a powerful example of when eBay launched their “Auction for America” after September 11th. Their goal was to raise $100 million in 100 days by selling donated items. Normally something like this would’ve taken 20 weeks. But eBay only had three days.

The company had 100 of their engineers working on the project – and they finished with just one hour to spare. “The members of the team all felt that they were on a mission, with a focused and important goal,” she notes.

According to Seelig, every environment has its own constraints, whether it’s “time, money, space, people and competition.” Remember that rather than viewing these limits as saboteurs, consider just how creative you can get.

Even if you have everything you need, Seelig encourages readers to consider how you’d do things without these resources.

Using Constraints to Cultivate Creativity

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Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). Using Constraints to Cultivate Creativity. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 26 May 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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